While many experiment with drugs, relatively few individuals develop a true addiction. We hypothesized that, in rats, such individual differences in the actions of addictive drugs might be determined by postnatal rearing conditions. To test this idea, we investigated whether stimulant- and stress-induced activation of nucleus accumbens dopamine transmission and dopamine-dependent behaviours might differ among adults rats that had been either repeatedly subjected to prolonged maternal separation or a brief handling procedure or left undisturbed (non-handled) during the first 14 days of life. We found that, in comparison with their handled counterparts, maternally separated and non-handled animals are hyperactive when placed in a novel setting, display a dose-dependent higher sensitivity to cocaine-induced locomotor activity and respond to a mild stressor (tail-pinch) with significantly greater increases in nucleus accumbens dopamine levels. In addition, maternally separated animals were found to sensitize to the locomotor stimulant action of amphetamine when repeatedly stressed under conditions that failed to sensitize handled and non-handled animals. Finally, quantitative receptor autoradiography revealed a lower density of nucleus accumbens-core and striatal dopamine transporter sites in maternally separated animals. Interestingly, we also found greatly reduced D3 dopamine receptor binding and mRNA levels in the nucleus accumbens-shell of handled animals. Together, these findings provide compelling evidence that disruptions in early postnatal rearing conditions can lead to profound and lasting changes in the responsiveness of mesocorticolimbic dopamine neurons to stress and psychostimulants, and suggest a neurobiological basis for individual differences in vulnerability to compulsive drug taking.